Business

Wednesday, Jan 02 2013 07:21 PM

Farm bill extension offers little help for Kern growers

BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

Kern County dairies benefited some but local growers of specialty crops such as grapes and nuts received little direct help from Congress' vote this week to extend the 2008 Farm Bill until Sept. 30.

The extension came Tuesday night as part of a deal to avert the "fiscal cliff" array of tax increases and spending cuts. While it provided limited support that should prevent a spike in milk prices, the deal essentially gave Congress nine more months to come up with reforms some say are still needed.

Notably for Kern growers, the extension offers no funding for the federal government's specialty crop block grant program, which last year provided California $19 million for things like pest control, crop research and overseas marketing assistance.

"That money will not be available until there's a new five-year farm bill," said Rayne Pegg, manager of the California Farm Bureau Federation's federal policy division.

The farm bill is one of Washington's more complex pieces of periodic legislation. Typically renewed with bipartisan support every five years, it provides financial assistance to farmers of "program crops" including wheat, corn, cotton and rice. Historically it has also funded food stamps and land conservation and helped farmers obtain crop insurance.

Failure to pass a comprehensive farm bill before the 2008 bill's Sept. 30 expiration has been widely attributed to election year politics. Ag industry representatives and some politicians said that's a shame because of bipartisan reforms proposed in versions passed by the Senate and the House Committee on Agriculture.

"There was time to get this done; there was time to have put together a bigger deal; there was time to pass a 5-year Farm Bill," said House Ag Committee member Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno. "But we didn't because far too many of those serving in this institution lack the will to put the country first and partisan interests last."

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, has said he tried, unsuccessfully, to pressure the House's Republican leadership to hold a vote on the bill. McCarthy spokeswoman Mariana Diez said the congressman was unavailable Wednesday, but that he "is continuing to work on a long-term solution" for the bill.

Rob Vandenheuvel, general manager of the Milk Producers Council, said that Tuesday's action will prevent what would have been an imminent spike in milk prices. But he quickly added that it does nothing to address the need to change a federal profit margin insurance program used by large dairies.

"The leadership clearly has no problem kicking this can down the road," he said. "But that doesn't mean we're not going to fight like crazy to get a full, five-year farm bill passed over the spring and summer."

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